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Seize the DVD! Dead Poets Society is back on DVD in a splendid special edition.

Dream Out Loud

Dead Poets Society is all about words and ideas and their ability to change the world, or at least the individual worlds of those who choose to think for themselves.

At the film’s core is John Keating (Robin Williams, Good Morning, Vietnam), a graduate of Welton Academy who returns to his alma mater after a teaching stint in London to open the eyes and minds of the latest crop of the prep school’s ultra-conservative overachievers. Keating’s an authority figure who questions authority and highly prizes the concept of one following one’s own bliss and, yes, seizing the day.

Under director Peter Weir’s steady hand, the movie overflows with inspirational tidbits and goose bump-inducing scenes, such as Keating’s first day on the job, when he ushers his younglings into a room filled with display cases and encourages them to study the photos on view and to stare into the eyes of those who walked the halls before them.

Keating opens the eyes and minds of his students
Keating opens the eyes and minds of his students

Amidst the giddiness of a student’s first love, a shy student’s simmering self confidence, and the camaraderie that grows between students and teacher as the Dead Poets Society gets resurrected, there’s also a tragic turn as one student’s artistic ambitions collide with those of his overbearing father’s pre-ordained plans for his son’s entire life. It all flows together in a masterful story that, above all, reminds one of the magic, fragility, and temporary nature of life.

In addition to Williams, who contributes what still ranks as perhaps his single best performance, the cast is riddled with up-and-coming talent, including a young Ethan Hawke (Training Day) and Robert Sean Leonard (Chelsea Walls).

Originally released in 1989, Dead Poets Society avoids feeling dated like so many other ’80s movies, not just because it’s set in the 1960s, but also because it tells a timeless story of self-awakening. It’s a story brought to life with an impeccable cast, a sterling director, the beautiful cinematography of John Seale, and another pitch-perfect score by Maurice Jarre.

After seeing Dead Poets Society, either for the first time or once again, ask yourself what your verse will be.

DVD Extras

The original DVD for Dead Poets Society, released during the format’s infancy, was a bare-bones, movie-only disc. Now, nearly 17 years after the movie’s theatrical release, Touchstone is to be commended for putting together a nice package that gives this modern classic more of the treatment it deserves. The biggest disappointment is that Robin Williams did not participate in any of the supplemental features.

The main supplement is a running commentary with director Peter Weir, screenwriter Thomas Schulman, and cinematographer John Seale. The track is like stepping into a conversation; Weir starts off immediately with some of his reflections and doesn’t even bother to introduce himself. However, maybe that’s an editing issue, because the track is really the compilation of three individual tracks recorded by the talents. A running conversation between the three probably would’ve been a little more engaging, but, while what’s here falls somewhat short of “film school” caliber, it’s very good.

A Look Back is a 26-minute collection of interviews nimbly edited for some humorous effects as various recollections are recounted and countered by different members of the production. Ethan Hawke’s memory seems to be the foggiest (was it the Ramada Inn they stayed in? Hmmm…). It’s also unclear when the interviews were recorded; at least some of them seem to be from around 2001, as Hawke states the movie was filmed 12 years ago. Be warned: The emphasis here is on acting and the actors gush with “thesp talk,” providing insights into the emotional complications and considerations of their job.

Cinematography Master Class features John Seale recreating some of the set lighting techniques used during the production; it’s an informative, technical segment originally presented as part of an Australian TV show.

A rather curious supplement is the one about the film’s sound editor, Alan Splet. It’s an interesting segment that includes an interview with Peter Weir and a voice-over interview with frequent collaborator David Lynch (Splet worked with Lynch on films including Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, and Dune). As is typical, Lynch provides some humorous comments in a very Lynchian sort of way, including the revelation of Splet’s final resting place.

Also on tap is the theatrical trailer, which is presented in a not-so-glorious full screen version.

Picture and Sound

Dead Poets Society is finally presented in 16x9-enhanced widescreen (1.85:1), featuring an almost pristine video transfer. Equally impressive is the 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound, which capitalizes on Maurice Jarre’s score and the ripping of pages from textbooks.

The DVD also includes a French language track and English captions for the hearing impaired.